Part 1. Lost originals
David Newell-Smith’s photograph first appeared on page four of the Observer on 15 November 1964. The extended caption read, “This evening rush-hour scene at Charing Cross station, typical of the last few days, is likely to be repeated again tomorrow unless the Southern Region railwaymen decide to call off their ‘go-slow.’ They are holding a mass meeting in New Cross today.”
When I first came across the page, I knew immediately that it should be included in the Observer picture archive series. The photograph epitomises the raison d’être of the series – the uncovering of work by unheralded photographers. Work that languishes in the picture library, work before pixels and instant access, work which illustrates the art of the newspaper photographer.
Newell-Smith’s job would have been a workaday diary news job. He would have returned to the paper’s office at 22 Tudor Street to see the job through. He was well known for printing all night, spouting Shakespeare aloud. The ‘crush of commuters’ photograph was such a cracker it appeared more than once in the paper. The final time was in the magazine on 6 September 1970 illustrating a feature on overcrowded cities with the caption “During the morning rush hour more than 34,000 travellers pass through Waterloo Underground station.” Pre-internet, you could play fast and loose with captions when re-using a photo. Who would remember a six-year-old picture caption?
Now it was my turn to re-use it. It was time to track down the originals.
There is a searchable online subscription database called ProQuest. Among many services, it stores facsimiles of (nearly) every Observer since 1791. Over the course of 10 months, I have been through the issues from 1949 to 1990, noting photographs of merit or interest by Observer photographers. When the anniversary of the original publication approaches, I pass as much information as I can to the Guardian News & Media archivists and they search the GNM archive database to see whether we can get a match, often having to lateral-think their way to a result. If the search bears fruit, they head down to the temperature-controlled, fingerprint accessed, archive in the basement at Kings Place and retrieve the prints, negatives and contacts. I go through them and make a selection, have the images scanned into our picture system, transcribe the original text, create an article for our website and publish it.
Simple when it works, but sometimes tracking down a shoot is not straightforward. There was no trace of Newell-Smith’s photograph in our archive.
I started looking through copies of the paper from 1949 because that was when Mechthild Nawiasky was hired to be our first picture editor, photographers Jane Bown and Michael Peto were taken on and we started using photography well. Since 1949, the Observer has moved from Tudor Street (where it had been since 1916) to the corner of Queen Victoria Street and St Andrew’s Hill in 1966, to Queenstown Road, Battersea in 1988, to Farringdon Road in 1993 and then to York Way in 2008. The picture library went with it, sometimes efficiently, sometimes haphazardly. It has been edited down, combed through by a photo agency trying to produce a CD-rom, and photographers have, on occasion, relieved it of some of its contents – to take to printers or their agencies. Originals get lost.
My last chance was Sonya Newell-Smith, David’s widow. She took up the search with gusto. In an old photo album, stuck down with cellophane, she found a vintage print.
To be continued …
Footnote: Subsequent to the publication of this article, Sonya Newell-Smith found David’s ‘crush of commuters’ negatives. GW